Earnhardt Finally Back On Top
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Two challenges met. One remains.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who snapped a lengthy victory drought in June, has completed the long, nearly nine-year road back to the top of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points standings.
Earnhardt and his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team truly can focus on the biggest prize, their first championship.
It’s certainly not a stretch to mention Earnhardt and championship in the same sentence.
“Give me a reason why not,” said crew chief Steve Letarte when asked for reasons why his driver could win the 2012 title.
Earnhardt is, in fact, on a career pace. His numbers through 20 races speak for themselves:
- Nine top fives, matching his previous best in 2004
- Fifteen top 10s
- Average finish of 8.1
- A perfect 20 lead-lap finishes, including last Sunday’s fourth-place run at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Dating back to last season, he has a record-sharing 21 consecutive lead-lap finishes.
- Second-best career Driver Rating through 20 races of 102.0 that trails only the 102.6 of 2008
Earnhardt last officially led the standings on Sept. 19, 2004, following a third-place finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a span of 281 starts. He also sat atop the points after the Oct. 3, 2004 race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, but lost it midweek after a 25-point penalty stemming from a post-race Victory Lane interview.
“All season long we’ve been working hard and finishing well. That is symbolic of how well we’ve done,” Earnhardt said following his Brickyard finish. He’s been outside the top five in points just once. “We need to win more races. If we want to win the championship, we have to. I imagine we can win a couple races in Chase.”
Earnhardt snapped a four-year winless streak on June 17 at Michigan International Raceway. He’s finished in the top five in three of the subsequent five races with his only real stumble a 23rd on the road course at Sonoma.
There’s no single key to Junior’s turnaround, which has been more like a continuing process. His first season with Letarte put the team in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup for the first time with a final finish of seventh.
Pairing the No. 88 team in the same shop as five-time champion Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 – and a closer relationship with crew chief Chad Knaus – has paid dividends as well.
That association isn’t lost on Johnson, who may wind up being Earnhardt’s chief rival for the championship.
“There’s a lot of confidence in our shop with both teams and the communication is as good as it’s ever been,” said Johnson in his Indianapolis winner’s press conference. “I’m happy to see Steve as confident as he is and Junior both because we can really lean on them and pull from them and it’s a two-way street.”
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